How to Find, Identify, and Cook Fiddlehead Ferns (2024)

Take a look around your local farmers market or health food store in early spring and you might find some strange-looking, green quarter-sized coiled vegetables known as fiddlehead ferns (also known as Ostrich ferns).These edible ferns are named for their resemblance to the ornamental ends of fiddles and other stringed instruments.But don’t blink.Because before you can say “fiddleheads” they’re gone!

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What Are Fiddlehead Ferns?

Fiddlehead ferns are edible ferns before they become inedible ferns.They are in the furled-up stage of a fern when they just start to shoot through the ground in spring.As they emerge through the fertile, wet April soil, they grow and unfurl quickly, sometimes lasting just a few days in their furled-up stage. At this stage, they are tender and edible.

Though all ferns have a fiddlehead stage, it’s the Ostrich fern, a specific edible fern species, that has become synonymous with the words “fiddlehead ferns.” Their taste is often described somewhere between asparagus, broccoli, and spinach.

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Because edible fiddlehead ferns appear for such a brief period in early spring and can only be foraged by individuals, they are considered a delicacy and can be quite pricey. I’ve heard of some specialty stores selling them for $20 a pound!

But you can harvest them yourself for free! You just have to know where to look.

And that’s what makes fiddlehead ferns so special.

Where Do Fiddlehead Ferns Grow?

Fiddleheads grow prolifically throughout New England and eastern parts of Canada.But unlike many wild edibles that grow seemingly everywhere, like dandelions, stinging nettles, and Japanese knotweed, fiddlehead ferns grow in wild and wet areas. And that’s why I love searching for them.They’re more apt to take you a bit off the beaten path into Nature, along the edges of rivers, stream banks, and swampy areas.

Though they are not hard to find, many keep their locations secret so they will not be over-harvested. And I feel the same way!Part of the joy is finding them yourself anyway.There’s nothing quite like stumbling across a patch that no one else knows about.If need be, jot it down so you won’t forget in the future. I have a notebook with about six locations I’ve found in the past few years.

How to Identify Fiddleheads

I would recommend an experienced guide the first time to be on the safe side.Some fiddleheads look like some varieties ofOstrich fern fiddleheads that are not only not edible but can be toxic. I did a few wild edible walks with some experienced herbalists a few years ago and they were very helpful.

There are also some good guidebooks that will help you identify fiddleheads and other wild edibles. Here are a few I recommend:

Northeast Foraging by Leda Meredith

The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer

A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants by Lee Allen Peterson

Once you see them for the first time, fiddlehead ferns become very easy to recognize. They are bright green and can easily be seen amidst the dark soil, twigs, and leaves from which they emerge.They grow in clumps of about six.Here are some pics of some clumps just starting to peek through the earth:

This clump is probably one day ahead of the above pic…

These are probably a little too early to pick.But aren’t they beautiful? I think they look like tiny green sleeping dragons.But once they peek through, they start growing fast! Here are some that are primed and ready for harvesting

Here is a similar view of another clump…

They will remain tightly coiled until they reach a height of about four to six inches. When you come across a good patch there will be hundreds if not thousands of them growing together and some will grow quicker than others.All the pics in this blog were taken from the same patch on the same day. But after a few weeks, they’ll all unfurl.Here’s a pic of a clump that is just beyond being harvestable:

As they grow a few inches from the earth, they have three defining features.The first is the bright green stem which we’ve already seen. The second is the feathery brown papery material that covers the sides of the coils. Like so

That material either falls off on its own or you can pick it off yourself.

And the third defining feature is the deep groove on the inside of the stem. Like so

How Do I Pick Fiddleheads?

Pick them before they unfurl, when they’re about one to four inches in height. You can simply pinch and snap the stem about a half-inch to an inch from the coiled head.Look for the more tightly wound fiddleheads and don’t be afraid to brush away leaves, twigs, and logs.Sometimes you’ll find the bigger ones in more hidden, cool areas.

Never pick a clump clean.Leave at least a few unpicked fiddleheads.Otherwise, the entire Ostrich fern will die.

You can easily blow or brush off the papery brown material as you pick them or just wait and rinse it off when you get home.

How Do I Cook Fiddleheads?

First, cooking them is important! You can get sick if you eat them raw or don’t cook them long enough.

Rinse the fiddleheads.Make sure you cook them well but don’t overcook them.Boil in water for about five to seven minutes or steam for ten to twelve minutes. Then saute lightly in butter or olive oil.Season with salt and pepper. Voila!

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For a great book with 75 recipes for fiddleheads, check out Fiddleheads and Fairies by Nannette Sawtelle Richford.

You can use fiddleheads like you use any vegetable.They work beautifully with egg dishes like omelets and frittatas, go great with pasta dishes, soups, and stir-fries but also work alone as a side dish to accompany meats and fish.I cooked them the other night with lamb and mashed potatoes.

They are best to use soon after picking but they will last in your fridge for at least a week.You can even have fiddleheads in the middle of winter as they can be frozen for up to a year.

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